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Know Your Category

I’d like to preface this post by repeating that I’m not trying to stifle your creative genius. I’m really not. But, as I’ve said before, you should probably learn the rules before you break them. At no time is this more true than when you’re trying to decide what age range you’re writing for. I’m going through some submissions right now and the writers seem to be confused. This happens a lot and it just means one thing: you haven’t done your market research.

For example, and this is from my own imagination, not a recent submission: what do I do with a 5,000 word fiction picture book about world politics? Or a 5,000 word middle grade about a baby puppy who goes on a naptime adventure? Or a 300,000 word YA starring a talking salmon? Maybe a 10,000 word YA about a character’s messy divorce?

If all of those examples weren’t immediately funny to you, you need this post. When I speak at conferences, I tell people all the time that booksellers will not build you your own shelf at their stores just because you want to do something different.

Take picture books as a fine example. Most editors are very specific about what they want these days (and, frustrating yet liberating, there are always exceptions to the rules, but don’t aspire to be one of them right out of the gate). They want highly commercial character-driven (but with plot!) picture books that clock in on the short side, usually under 700 words for fiction.

How do I know this? I talk to editors all the time.

But how might you, if you weren’t a) me, b) reading this blog or c) talking to lots of editors, know this, too?

Go to the bookstore. Head to your local indie or chain store and see what’s on the shelves. Don’t worry about muddying your artistic integrity by looking at other books in the same vein as yours. (I’ll have to post on this, I have lots of thoughts as both a writer and agent and they’re pulling me in separate directions!) You’re just doing market research right now. What do you see? I’m guessing you’ll see a lot of commercial, character-driven (with plot!) picture books that are on the short side.

That’s what publishers are buying from creators and that’s what bookstores are buying from publishers and that’s (ideally) what customers are buying from bookstores. That’s the market.

So if you can tell your story in a highly commercial way (know that this is subjective), base it on a strong character and plot, and in 700 words or fewer, why tell it another way? Why try and write a 5,000-word international political drama and call it a picture book? Why write “YA” about an adult character? Why try a 5,000 word “novella” when the MG books on shelves are between 25,000 and 55,000 words?

The children’s market is unique in that the audience is on a pretty structured developmental scale. Sure, there are 4 year-olds who are reading (or being read) Neil Gaiman, like my friend’s kid (bizarre and perhaps inappropriate but she seems to love it). And there are reluctant readers who are constantly frustrated because the books they can read are all about younger characters. But, at least in theory, kids develop on a scale so their books need to have certain lengths, content requirements and vocabulary levels. Not only is there not much precedent for a sociopolitical 5,000 word picture book on shelves in the bookstore, but there’s no audience for it in terms of the target picture book readership (3-5, 5-7). Same for the 10,000 YA with an adult protagonist or the anthropomorphic epic or the short MG about a baby animal.

When you sit down to write, be super clear about what you’re setting out to do. Check out my post on manuscript length. Make sure your manuscript fits guidelines for the age range that you’re targeting. Make sure your protagonist is someone who people in that age range would care about. Make sure your subject matter is equally interesting. You won’t find practical concerns like these in the adult world, but you will find heaps of them when you’re writing for children, just because children are always in flux.

If you feel a bit clueless about what you’re writing and what category it fits into, spend an afternoon at a bookstore. Seriously. It could be the most valuable three hours you ever spend and it will teach you more about the market than I ever could. There’s just no excuse for me to be seeing some of the submissions that people cook up. And I wouldn’t be seeing them, guaranteed, if some authors didn’t take the time to learn their category, embrace it, and write within it. Why? Because that’s what editors are buying. Because that’s what bookstores are buying. Because that’s what readers are buying. It’s really very simple.

P.S. — Yes, my punk rock teenage self would rail against this recommendation to stay inside the lines, category-wise. But I figure that getting published is hard enough. Why stack the odds against you by turning out that 5,000-word PB or that adult protagonist YA?

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  1. Olleymae’s avatar

    Hang in there Sushi!!! Her name has been written on my arm to remind me to pray for her lol and people keep asking why I have Sushi on my arm.

    Also, this is great advice, and my creative genius does not feel stifled. Why would someone really want to break the general rules for the market categories?? Those divisions are where the biggest audiences are, right? If you don’t care about audiences, self publish and pass the book out to your neighbor kids.

  2. Melissa’s avatar

    Oh, Sushi! Give her a hug from us, Mary (but maybe just one from all of us. I’m sure you’d both prefer most of the hugs you give her to be from you).

    This is good advice. New writers naturally have a hard time with it. My first attempts at PBs were way too long (1500 words or higher), and my first attempt at an MG was way too short (13,000 words). I’ve noticed that other new writers have a similar problem. It’s tough when that happens. You’ve worked hard and you want your story to make it, but it’s just part of the work. And happily, now that I’m getting farther along in my Million Bad Words, my writing just seems to end up at approximately the word count I want.

    The SCBWI discussion boards once put me on to this website, where it’s possible to plug in the titles of almost any book and see the word count. I like to make a list of books that seem fairly similar to what I’m doing and check how long they are: http://www.renlearn.com/store/quiz_home.asp

  3. Chantal Kirkland’s avatar

    You’d think this was pretty obvious stuff for someone to know. Too bad it’s not, apparently.

  4. Chantal Kirkland’s avatar

    Vet’s offices have this great high-calorie wet doggie food that did wonders for my pup. You might ask, if Sushi’s still not feeling well. I hope she gets better…

  5. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Write on, Mary!
    The best three hours spent, indeed!

  6. Adventures in Children's Publishing’s avatar

    But wait, does the salmon have a Wow-I’m-so-drawn-to-that-hot-guy-but-he-totally-hates-me-but-oh-wait-it-turns-out-he-acts-like-he-hates-me-because-he-really-loves-me-with-an-intensity-verging-on-dangerous” love story?

  7. Valerie’s avatar

    Just wanted to say, in regards to Sushi that I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this, it’s so painful to watch your kitty be sick.

    When I adopted my cat, she was just barely 8 weeks old and they spayed her right away which weakened her already weak immune system. She got really sick, was very lethargic, had a fever and wouldn’t eat. At the vet’s recommendation, I fed her baby food through a syringe which was easier than wet cat food. It turned out that the anti-biotic they gave her was what was taking away her appetite. And then of course, the not eating so much added to her lethargy. BUT I just wanted to give you hope because we did the full course of anti-biotics, then had to do a second before finally we took her off and her appetite came back almost immediately. Today she is very healthy. So chances are good that Sushi will bounce back too. I’ll be sending positive energy your way!

  8. Chersti’s avatar

    Great post! I love hanging out at the bookstore and see what’s trending on the shelves now. I’ve noticed there are a lot of cross-genre books, but even those ones have to be shelved in the bookstore somewhere. It’s also so much fun picking up a book on the shelf and trying to guess why that book was chosen to be published. You can learn so much that way. Thanks for the insights!

  9. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Thanks for this Mary :) And hang in there Sushi!

  10. Estee Wood’s avatar

    Thanks for the giggle! Great advice — does a three hour trip to Amazon count? Congratulations on the Writer’s Digest announcement and I’m hoping for more encouraging news about Sushi.

  11. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Great post, but I have a question – what does ‘commercial’ mean? I get character-driven and strong plot, but what does this magical ‘commercial’ word actually mean in concrete terms? That it will appeal to the masses?

    Fingers crossed for better Sushi news tomorrow.

  12. Joan’s avatar

    Sushi’s sniffing at the food with some interest is encouraging. Once my dogs get the wet food, they have a hard time going back to the dry . . . lazy things. ;-) Hopefully Sushi will be eating wet food on her own soon and then will go back to the dry. As you said, it’s a one day at a time thing.

    300,000 words is a bit much. Everyone knows the limit for YA is 290,000 words. Wait! Don’t stone me, I’m joking. =)

    I can’t imagine ever writing a 300,000 word manuscript. I’ve never even made it to 100,000 words. My max word count has been around 75,000 (for a YA paranormal novel), but I edited it down to around 60,000.

    It’s not that I don’t have 100,000 or even 300,000 words in me . . . it’s just that I don’t have 100,000 or 300,000 necessary-to-the-story words in me. Not even for a rough draft. ;-)

  13. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    I think Mary’s right on the money about this. The number one way to do market research is in the bookstore.

    A close number two? I might be biased, but I think looking at state list, award winners, library lists (like YALSA picks), and bestsellers are also worthwhile introductions into markets. Granted, some lists may be more “stuffy” than others. I still think it’s worth a writers’ time to check them out.

    Good stuff.

  14. KellieD’s avatar

    My only issue with bookstore market research is that some of the authors/titles that I expect to be there are not. For example, I was shocked that the largest Barnes&Noble location in my area did not have things like Heart in a Bottle by Oliver Jeffers when it came out or any of the Polly Dunbar Hello Tilly books. So, what does that tell me about the market? I wasn’t really sure what to make of that. . .

  15. Thomas’s avatar

    I laughed at those examples, but I still have trouble with these age bands. My writing tends to end up stuck somewhere between MG and YA, in what I understand is called ‘tween’ fiction, and I can’t help thinking I should take the plunge and move clearly one way or the other.

    Bookshelves aren’t always that helpful. Lyra is 12, but is Northern Lights really MG? Once you get into it, this subject’s a moveable feast, especially with publishers having everything to gain from keeping readership as open as possible. I’m reading Will Peterson’s Triskellion at the moment, and I honestly don’t know if it’s YA or MG.

  16. Mary’s avatar

    KellieD — I *love* HEART IN A BOTTLE but think it’s a weird book in terms of market. It’s very esoteric and seems like it’ll speak more to adults. I have no idea how well it was picked up by chains but see it as a bit of a melancholy departure from some of his more accessible work. Again, I love it, but I don’t know how you’d pitch that to a book buyer. “Um, a really philosophical story about growing up and locking your heart away from the possibilities of the world around you…”? And they would say: “And this is a PICTURE BOOK you’re talking about?”

    Thomas — Yes, the MG/Tween/YA split is the most difficult to define. For that one, try your hardest to write one or the other… if you can avoid it, don’t make your characters 14/15. Practice writing firmly MG and then firmly YA and see which one feels most natural.

  17. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Mary,

    Sending more prayers Sushi’s way and sending a big congrats in your direction for being listed with WD. What an honor.

    In addition, I’m sending a thank you for your continued support of us aspriring writers and the way you patiently remind us of what we can do to up our chances of getting our foot in the proverbial door.

  18. Thomas’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary. My MC is 14!

    My novel is out on submission now, and I have had a little nibble from a publisher who suggests that if I agree to edit the text firmly into MG they would be tempted. That looks like the way to go.

    I don’t really get teenagers anyway:)

  19. Lisa Gibson’s avatar

    Oh man my thoughts are with you and Sushi! I hope Sushi improves. Valuable post where genre is concerned.

  20. janet’s avatar

    The lines between middle grade and YA really confuse me. For example most of the popular books that middle graders read are longer than the recommended 45,000 words–Percy Jackson, The City of Ember, and The Warriors series just to name a few. And more and more I am noticing things on television that market definite middle grade student stuff using older teenagers. There’s a new show on Cartoon Network with a teenage protagonist (the protagonists in Ben 10 are teenagers too). And what’s with the nerf gun ads? Those guys playing with those guns are at least 16 years old. But I’ve never seen a high school student go nuts over a nerf gun (my ten year old son thinks they’re real cool though).

  21. Shari M.’s avatar

    Mary, it’s good news that Sushi is hydrated, eating (even if you have to help her), and comfortable. Congratulations on the Writers Digest news — that is awesome, although not a huge surprise! :-)

    Siski, I have also wondered what, exactly, “commercial” means in the picture book world. I am imagining that it means mainstream, but not Elmo and Disney princesses…

  22. June’s avatar

    Once again, You’ve posted a truly helpful topic that should help people stay on their toes and not lose out on opportunity because they’re not paying attention. I just found out about Sushi. I feel your pain and fear. I just lost my cat Boozie last week completely unexpected.

    She too was about 14 as I found her in my yard 12 years ago. Both she and I went through so much together. We were both really sick in 2006. She had lymphoma and underwent chemo, a feeding tube etc. I prayed she would start eating again on her own so I totally identify with what you’re going through. She took medication daily since that time, and recovered nicely so her passing was a complete shock. We’re not even sure what happened really.

    I’m hoping to hear good news about Sushi and praying for her recovery and an uplift in your spirit.

  23. shelley’s avatar

    Very helpful! I think this answers my ? in the general comments section. Thanks.
    Hang in there Su, Su, Su, Sushi!

  24. shelley’s avatar

    I think this answers my ? in the general comments section. Thanks.
    Hang in there Su, Su, Su, Sushi!

  25. Lindsay’s avatar

    Get well soon Sushi!

    Great post. I agree, knowing your category is important. I still spend hours in the bookstore. I like to see it as research, but I worry the people who work there think I’m a bit weird. heehee.

  26. Rachel Heston Davis’s avatar

    Mary, I have had pets come back from some pretty bad stuff, so hang in there with Sushi! I know she can make it.

    And what a great post! I was at a writer’s conference just a couple of weeks ago and met a woman who wrote her first novel at above 250,000 words–then realized at the conference that she needed to cut it down. Think of the work she could have been saved if she had just done some market research early on in the process!

    The subject of word count can get a little fuzzy in certain genres. For example, sci-fi and fantasy YA tend to allow for longer word count (think GRACELING by Kristin Cashore, which I’m pretty sure is 100,000+) because of the need for world-building, and the complex plot lines that such stories often require.

    Rachel Heston Davis

  27. Kelley York’s avatar

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Sushi! I hope she gets better soon. :(

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